0245 GMT January 21, 2021
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her annual State of the EU speech to warn Turkey not to bully Greece and Cyprus over energy resources in the disputed waters, AFP reported.
"Turkey is and will always be an important neighbor, but while we are close together on the map, the distance between us appears to be growing," von der Leyen told the European Parliament.
"Yes, Turkey is in a troubled neighborhood. And yes, it is hosting millions of refugees, for which we support them with considerable funding. But none of this is justification for attempts to intimidate its neighbors."
The three countries have been locked in a row over energy resources and maritime borders in the region. Tensions between Ankara and Athens spiked after Ankara resumed energy exploration work in the Eastern Mediterranean last month. Turkey has withdrawn a seismic research vessel from waters disputed with Greece for maintenance, but ties have remained strained, and the dispute has drawn in the EU.
There have been fears of conflict erupting and Cyprus is pressing the rest of the EU to impose fresh sanctions on Ankara over the drilling.
Greece and Cyprus can count on Europe’s “full solidarity on protecting their legitimate sovereignty rights,” von der Leyen added in her speech that came days ahead of a European Council summit on Turkey and the EU’s response to recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey on Tuesday also complained that Greece has been militarizing the island of Chios in a move that runs counter to a historic treaty, while at the same time, Ankara announced the extension of drilling activity in the Mediterranean waters.
The Turkish Naval Forces Office for Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography (OHNO) made the announcement regarding the militarization of Chios in a navigational telex on Tuesday, Press TV reported.
Chios is located across from Turkey’s Izmir Province.
Turkey is opposed to Greece’s military deployment to islands in the Aegean Sea, considering it a provocation, and a threat to peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The rearming of the demilitarized Aegean islands has always been a thorny issue between the two neighbors. Turkey argues that under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the final treaty concluding World War I, Greece has no right to militarize the Aegean islands.
Greece, however, cites the more recent 1936 Montreux Convention on Turkish Straits to defend its deployments. Turkey contests that argument too, saying the demilitarized status remains the same under the convention.
New maritime notice
Also on Tuesday, Turkey issued a new maritime notice to extend the operations of an energy drilling ship in the disputed Mediterranean waters off Cyprus.
The new notice was issued for the Yavuz drilling ship, extending its operations until October 12.
According to the notice, Yavuz will be escorted by three other Turkish ships, and “all vessels are strongly advised not to enter” the area where they operate, the Press TV report added.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, with the northern third run by a Turkish Cypriot administration recognized only by Turkey and the southern two-thirds governed by the internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government.
France in particular has been assertively supporting Greece, building up military presence in the dispute area and conducting joint exercises with the Greek military.
On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron “not to mess” with Turkey, as tensions between the two NATO allies deteriorated over the simmering standoff between Ankara and Athens.
Paris fully backs Athens in its standoff with Ankara and has even threatened Turkey with sanctions.
Athens ready for talks
Athens announced on Tuesday that it was ready for talks with Turkey over disputed Mediterranean waters if Ankara continues “disengaging itself” from the crisis, after the withdrawal of its exploration vessel from the contested region.
“Turkey still has time – ahead of and after the (EU) summit – to continue the first encouraging step of disengaging itself from this crisis,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said following talks in Athens with European Council President Charles Michel.
“If we have tangible proof and this (proof) is continued, we are ready to start immediately – I stress that, immediately – exploratory talks with Turkey regarding our only major dispute: The demarcation of maritime zones” in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, he said.
According to a Reuters report, Greek and Turkish military officials were also holding separate “de-confliction” talks at NATO headquarters on Tuesday. The meeting was one of a series of contacts intended to prevent any incident at sea spilling over into open conflict. However, it was not expected to address the actual dispute.